Ukrainian Jews leaving Passover eve prayers were handed leaflets ordering them to either register with an interim government trying to make the eastern province of Donetsk Russian – or face deportation.
But the pro-Russian separatist leader of Donetsk whose name was on the leaflets denied his organization was behind their printing, raising doubts about their authenticity and origin.
“Some idiots yesterday were giving out these flyers in targeted areas,” Denis Pushilin said in an interview with Ukrainian press, the website Think Progress reported Thursday.
The alarming report on the flyers in Ynet News, Israel’s largest news website, said armed, masked men were waiting outside one synagogue to hand worshipers leaflets telling them to register with separatist forces.
The flyers said all Jews in the province over the age of 16 must register, provide a list of property they own and pay a registration fee of about $50 or “else have their citizenship revoked, face deportation and see their assets confiscated.”
The leaflets also were handed out in other areas where pro-Russian activists have defied an ultimatum from Kiev to surrender, and asserted Donetsk is an independent “people’s republic.”
The flyers also said Jews were being ordered to register because of their support for the Bendery Junta, named for Stepan Bandera, a controversial Ukrainian independence fighter during World War II whose followers have been accused of collaboration with Nazi Germany in wartime atrocities.
The papers said the Jewish residents oppose Pushilin’s interim government, and they were told an “ID and passport are required to register your Jewish religion, religious documents of family members, as well as documents establishing the rights to all real estate property that belongs to you, including vehicles.”
Donetsk is home to some 4.3 million people, including an estimated 17,000 Jews, reports Ynet, and is home to much of Ukraine’s heavy industry, so it’s considered one of the biggest prizes of the region.
Jewish resident Olga Reznikova, 32, told Ynet she never experienced anti-Semitism in the city until she saw this leaflet. She said it reminded her of the “fascists in 1941,” a reference to the Nazis who occupied Ukraine during World War II. Hitler’s regime murdered one million Ukrainian Jews in the Holocaust.
“I do not intend to register,” she said. “I am 32, I have lived in Donetsk my entire life and have never had to deal with anti-Semitism until I laid eyes on this piece of paper. Though I take it very seriously, I am uncertain of its authenticity.”
Indeed, it’s not at all clear who was distributing the leaflets, Michael Salberg, director of the international affairs at the New York City-based Anti-Defamation League told USA Today, as they could have come from the pro-Russian leadership or a splinter group.
The document was originally posted by Ukrainian website novosti.dn.ua, and then picked up by USA Today and Ynet News, the website Mashable reports.
In a statement to Mashable, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, questioned the flyers’ authenticity while condemning the “cynical” messaging they contained.
“The ADL today condemned the appearance of anti-Semitic fliers in Donetsk, Ukraine, and called on all parties involved in the political conflicts in Ukraine to refrain from ‘cynical and politically manipulative’ exploitation of anti-Semitism,” Foxman said.
“We are skeptical about the flyer’s authenticity, but the instructions clearly recall the Nazi era and have the effect of intimidating the local Jewish community.”
Another group, NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia, which advocates on behalf of Jews living in the 15 successor states of the former Soviet Union, also said it had contacted the Donetsk Jewish community leadership, which said the flyers are intended to incite conflict, Mashable reported.
Russians have been using claims of anti-Semitism since anti-government forces pushed out Ukraine’s pro-Russian former President Victor Yanukovych, issuing multiple stories about the the threat Ukraine’s new pro-Western government posed to Jews by in Kiev, Salberg said.
The threats turned out to be false, he said, even though they were based in part on ultra-nationalists joining the protests and the inclusion of the ultra-nationalist Svoboda party in the interim government.
The ADL and the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union have both said anti-Semitic acts have not increased since before the initial protests. The leaflets are “a recruitment tool to appeal to the xenophobic fears of the majority, to enlist them to your cause and focus on a common enemy, the Jews,” Salberg said.
“The message is a message to all the people that […] we’re going to exert our power over you,” he said. “Jews are the default scapegoat throughout history for despots to send a message to the general public: Don’t step out of line.”